Treating the aches and pains of playing music | Music | DW | 17.02.2014
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Treating the aches and pains of playing music

Violinists' eczema, painful joints, muscle cramps, tinnitus - around 70 percent of professional musicians suffer from ailments associated with their jobs. But the doctor is in at a musicians' clinic in Düsseldorf.

"My fingers are tripping over each other, and it's already giving me a lot of pain" - that's how Robert Schumann once described his condition. Today, we know the composer was suffering from musician's cramp, formally called focal dystonia. A fellow sufferer was American pianist Leon Fleischer, who could no longer use his right hand for 30 years starting in the 1960s.

Other well-known examples of musicians' ailments include pianist Murray Perahia's thumb inflammation and tenor Rolando Villazon's voice loss. The physical strain musicians face can be compared to that of competitive athletes.

But while sports medicine is a well-established field, a comparable medical arena for musicians is just now coming into being. Some German music academies now come outfitted with clinics for musicians, but they often house just a single doctor.

Treating members of the Duisburg Philharmonic at the musicians' clinic in Düsseldorf (c) Musikerambulanz am UKD

The Duisburg Philharmonic's basoon quartet in for an examination in Düsseldorf

An exception comes by way of a Düsseldorf musicians' clinic, created two years ago by the music journalist, organist and physician Wolfram Goertz. Joined to the local university clinic, Goertz's institution is part of a network including neurologists, orthopedists, hand surgeons, psychologists and physiotherapists. It can be a source of rescue for suffering musicians from Germany and all around Europe - many of whom often have years of trouble in other doctors' offices behind them.

Instruments in the waiting room

"The usual case is, indeed, that a patient who comes to us has already been to at least two or three specialists without being able to find the cause for what's ailing him," said Wolfram Goertz. "After all, the doctors have never examined their patients holding their musical instruments."

That's why performers seeking help in Düsseldorf are asked to bring their instruments along to the university clinic, where the doctors themselves have musical experience and are familiar with the physical movements that go into playing a given instrument.

Wolfram Goertz (c) Musikerambulanz am UKD

Medical doctor and musician: Wolfram Goertz

"Musicians often have to take on an 'abnormal' position in order to play. This can cause chronic pain over time," Goertz said.

Just as musicians differ, so, too, do the injuries they're prone to. "It's an unbelievably wide array," said Wolfram Goertz, "Violinists often have problems with their shoulders; cellists with their thumb saddle joint. With brass players, it's often their lips and facial muscles, and they frequently complain of dizziness. And stage fright is a huge problem of course."

Athletes on stage

Before musicians make the trip to the clinic in Düsseldorf, Wolfram Goertz conducts a thorough phone call with them in order to plan their appointments. After initial consultation and treatment, the musicians receive a practice plan.

"They must realize that they are high-performance athletes," Goertz said. "Just as Usain Bolt warms up before a 100-meter dash, musicians also need to take ten minutes and get ready with stretching exercises. Only then should they pick up an instrument."

Treating a guitarist at the musicians' clinic in Düsseldorf (c) Musikerambulanz am UKD

Neurologist Ulrike Kahlen and hand surgeon Tim Lögters examine a guitarist

Growing reputation

Even during their first visit to the musicians' clinic, all patients are led through various departments and examined by multiple specialists.

"Good treatment is defined by considering a case in a comprehensive way," said Goertz. "At the university clinic, you can always bring in colleagues, just by calling them."

The institution has meanwhile treated more than 500 patients, and its reputation has spread to Europe's major orchestras.

"We've had orchestral musicians from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam here," said Goertz. "Our patients include members of at least half of Germany's radio symphony orchestras. And in April 2013, we established a partnership with the Duisburg Philharmonic. We're now their team doctor in a sense - looking after individuals, but also offering preventative medicine."

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